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A little less conversation, a little more action

The Cranfield University 2017 National Manufacturing Debate covered leadership challenges as well as skills shortages and the future investment in the skills required for British industry to prosper.

Frighteningly, Dr Rajkumar Roy highlighted that management skills across the SME sector have not really changed over the last 10 years and that all the attempts to address this have failed. Not only does the sector need to think about how to address these challenges, there is an ongoing growing gap in the new skills required over the next 10-20 years, which seems to only be getting worse. Allan Cook CBE, Chairman of Atkins, said that we need to give students a reason to become Chartered Engineers - mirroring what I had said in my recent blog - and that we need to find a way to connect with SME leaders.  

It was mentioned that even if all the students in the system chose STEM subjects over the next few years, there would still be a significant skills gap. The challenge is much bigger than new people joining the work force. Neil Carberry of the CBI highlighted it is about the reskilling and retraining of the existing workforce, not just influencing students in schools. In my recent survey on what poses a greater risk to UK manufacturing and engineering businesses, an astonishing 94% of my network believe that an ageing workforce was a bigger threat than Brexit.  

There was concern around the use of the apprenticeship levy and the fact it should only be used in the areas where there are skills gaps. Dr Rajkumar Roy discussed the need for universities to be more involved with their local communities and get better at working with industry, government and schools. It was suggested that the whole process should be institutionalised.

Below are two slides from Dr Rajkumar Roy's presentation:


Nothing new so far, right? We have heard this before. 

There is certainly a great degree of self-awareness about the UK’s strengths and weaknesses. It was recognised that the UK is great at innovation and has a world class R&D capability, but it seems to lack the ability to commercialise and grow these great innovations into profitable sizeable businesses. 

I started providing interim management services to the manufacturing and engineering sectors back in 2012 and I have witnessed many discussions about the skills shortage and other challenges that UK industry is facing. What I haven’t heard is a discussion around  what the industry and government are doing to rectify this issue.

I was fascinated to finally hear a great example of a business taking matters in to their own hands and taking a slightly different approach to their skills shortages.

Mary Brady, VP and General Manager of Coty Manufacturing, presented some of the activities they are doing to help increase the flow of talent into her business.

Mary highlighted that there are 180,000 UCAS students that do not get their grades, and that this is a huge missed opportunity of potential talent. Mary and her team have purposefully sought out Gap Year students and offered them internships for the last four years. Students have benefited from working with experienced engineers, who have in turn been introduced to the many new technologies that younger people are exposed to. Reverse mentoring has become commonplace within Coty UK and has benefited all involved. Not only have the operational KPI’s improved within their manufacturing facility, but so has the capability of the existing work force, particularly around new technologies. In my opinion these are the types of stories we need to be shouting about. 

A gentleman who runs an industrial business in the West Midlands said he has never had skills issues because he hires adults and invests the time in retraining them, thus building a loyal workforce with the skills his business requires. 

I could continue listing the many discussions that took place throughout the course of the day, but I fear I will bore you with what you already know.

Instead I want to ask you if you have witnessed or worked in any businesses that are particularly good at building talent pipelines for the future. I feel we have far more to gain if we can share the success stories as the ones mentioned above. Please share your comments below.  


Claire Lauder is the Director of Manufacturing & Engineering


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Keith Parkin

08 Jun 2017 15:06 PM

5 years ago I undertook voluntary duties as a STEM Ambassador through STEMNet and a local charitable organisation, Basingstoke Consortium, in supporting TeenTech, an organisation run by Maggie Philbin the TV presenter of Tomorrows World fame and a STEM evangelist. I've supported this through the years giving up my time for free.

Those early days saw unpaid volunteers taking unpaid leave from their employers to support the event. Which about summed up the attitude of businesses to investing in the future for our youngsters.

Over the years with cajoling and public shaming of some of the areas biggest employers through local press and TV, the event has grown.

TeenTech Hampshire is next Tuesday and will be supported by Air Products, AWE, Atkins, Bank of England, Fujitsu, Laleham Health & Beauty, Sodexo, Scottish and Southern Electricity, Symantec, Thames Valley Rep Rap Group, Thames Water, Arqiva, Blatchford, British Computer Society, Celador Radio, Clarcor Industrial Air, data2impact Limited, De La Rue, Farnborough Aerospace Consortium, Institute of Civil Engineers, JVC Kenwood, McLaren, Network Rail, Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital NHS Trust, Royal Navy, Southampton University, Thermo Fisher Scientific, University of Chichester, Winchester City Council/Landscape Institute.

Some figures released today ahead of the event:
The event has generated powerful impacts with the young people attending it over the five years it has run. 86% of previous attendees have said they were more likely to choose a Science, Technology, Engineering or Maths (STEM) career having been to the event and tracking student’s choices in the following years has shown 66% have proactively followed this route by taking further STEM studies, nationally the figure for those continuing STEM studies is just 30%.

There have been shed loads of talking shops like the Cranfield Debate and CEO conferences, REC reports etc that amount to less positive results.

This is just 1 small event in the TeenTech calendar.

I don't agree with the skills shortage mantra trotted out constantly by whining CEOs and business leaders. There are legions of over qualified, too experienced, over skilled Engineers out of work that don't fit culturally. Perhaps the culture is not that aligned to Engineering & Manufacturing and the decision makers basing hiring decisions such are in the wrong positions to advance our economy.

Claire Lauder

07 Jun 2017 17:12 PM

Ex JLR Board Member

That's a big topic -- I certainly am aware of schemes that JLR have created that work with a number of universities to give relevant and targeted skills courses that are accredited and can be used to develop a broad range of necessary technical skills , called TAS (technical accreditation scheme) --- it has been quite good on that Arena. But I agree it's a real issue, especially for the smaller enterprises.

Claire Lauder

07 Jun 2017 17:03 PM

A comment from my network. A Chairman across multiple SME businesses.

Thanks for this. Very interesting.

My experience is that too many companies try to fix their productivity underperformance and innovation by assuming that they have exhausted all their internal possible solutions and that fresh talent is the only route to follow.

There are still too few companies that have even tried to implement minimal levels of lean manufacturing and/or taking a step back and reviewing the driving forces underpinning their product development programs. MDs and management teams claim to be too busy to try these approaches and therefore more people are needed. They will spend large amounts of time recruiting new employees and integrating them into the business in the hope that salvation lies there. In the meantime the key business issues continue to shackle the future progress of the company

It is possible to make significant improvements within a business using the experience pool that exists already sometimes supported by tactical capex. However, if the senior team abdicate their responsibility for this and delegate the recovery program to more junior levels failure is guaranteed.

As chairman in my current role, we are set to have a fourth record year in a row without increasing the employee population or skillsets. We have tapped into our internal experience/expertise pool driven by a committed senior team which has seen little or no change in their make up. Most have been with the company for 15-20 years!

The Apprentice levy is one of the most poorly thought through policy I have seen from Government in many years. It will cost this business £500k per annum with the nearest technical training support being in Huddersfield with no plans to put any such facility anywhere in the south west.

At a business which I joined as Chairman in Nov 2016, we are now on track to achieve sustainable net profits after 4 years of losses. Over the last 9 months productivity improvements, carefully targeted low level capex and ruthless culling of obsolete products and components plus a tougher commercial policy are at the heart of this recovery. For example, we make machine tooled producst which are big, unwieldy with average profitability. It's easy to lose money if simple mistakes are made. The production cell for these products has gone from making 1 screen per week to 7 today and by the end of July 2017 will be able to deliver 11 per week. We have replaced a major competitor and opened up new opportunities at existing customers. The management team is leaner and focussed. The MD spends less time wandering the shopfloor and more time driving strategy.

I do bang on about this somewhat simplistic approach but I have been involved in its practicable implementation over 25 years, multiple sectors and countries..

Claire Lauder

06 Jun 2017 13:38 PM

Actually perhaps I have misled the discussion by inferring that the skills gaps are purely engineering based, that was not the case at all and in fact one of the challenges discussed was we don't always know what the skills of the future need to be.

Dr Raj presented some interesting slides on the top 10 technical skills shortages according to govt & organisations verses what the media says as well as the top 10 non technical skills. I will try and get these stats on this blog somehow - leave it with me!

Thanks so much for engaging in the conversation, I just think there would be so much to gain to share from what other businesses are doing, so Tony please do share your example even if it is logistics focused!

Tony Evans

06 Jun 2017 13:13 PM

Glad to see a move towards action, not endless chit chat Claire. The sadness is that it is entirely driven by individual companies who have recognised that waiting for 'government' or anybody else to fix the problem is a waste of time.

I do have a great example of 'self help', which is spreading at the sector level, driven by companies - but it is in the logistics sector!

Scary stat about number of people required to fill skills gaps - or 'demand'!

Looking to a 10-20 year time horizon, I am not sure what sort of engineering will really be required to build the disruptive industries based on AI, alternative energy systems and biotech in its broader sense, coupled with materials technology such as but not confined to this.

Tom Pickering

06 Jun 2017 12:33 PM

Hi Claire, from my experience even in aerospace environment the "skills shortage" is a myth. At Safran we had a challenge to build the engineering design team: I resolved the skills issue by upskilling engineering leadership, buddying up senior and junior engineers and creating an aero engineering accademy to retain and develop the best skills.

There are many qualified engineers too that largely don't work in engineering, like myself as a FIET and IET fellow assessor, because there is very little appetite for making engineering environments more productive / great places to work because this is all in an engineering leaders blind-spot. its catch 22 -
engineers don't know what they don't know and somehow throughout their careers probably because of weak people leadership don't get their eyes opened that much to new ways of thinking.

keep ploughing on Claire :)
best Tom 07720 597869

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